How Aston Villa Women are gearing up for their debut WSL season

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Gemma Davies

Gemma Davies’ Aston Villa Women’s side became the first FA Women’s Championship team to remain undefeated in a season en route to the club’s first top-flight promotion.

A month on from securing their Women’s Super League status, Davies and Director of Women’s Football at Aston Villa, Eniola Aluko have been planning their assault on the league that includes the very best of women’s football, Sam Kerr, Lauren James and PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year Vivianne Miedema.

“The ultimate goal has to be to go full-time and be competing in the Super League. We have the ability and the capability as a club to do that,” explained Davies to VillaTV back in 2018.

Since clinching the FAWC title, Villa have signed two new players, retained the bulk of the promotion squad and even checked into a new stadium ahead of the 2020-2021 campaign which is due to get underway in September.

Davies is expected to add some top-flight experience and quality to an already exciting group of players that earned promotion in style – and the capture of Scotland international Chloë Arthur fits the bill.

Signed from Birmingham City, the 25-year-old midfielder spent the last two campaigns with Villa’s cross-city rivals and she’ll add some guile to a midfield in need of reinforcements following Villa’s eight-woman released list.

Arthur was Davies’ first summer signing ahead of the new WSL season following stints at Celtic, Hibernian and Bristol City during her career.

Davies was delighted to sign her first player of the window: “Chloë is a current Scottish International, who also has an abundance of Superleague experience having played at Birmingham and Bristol City.

“Chloë’s a very technical player, with a fantastic ability to weave the ball out of tight spaces, under pressure and play into bigger areas.

“I feel that there is so much more to come from Chloë, as she has a huge amount of talent and I’m really excited to see how she continues to develop in a Villa shirt.”

During her time at Birmingham under Marc Skinner and more recently with former Chile and Peru omen’s national team boss Marta Tejedor, Arthur offered a balance alongside partnering midfielder and England international Lucy Staniforth. Now under Davies, she’ll become a crucial part of Villa’s first season in the WSL.

Anita Asante is a signing of intent

Asante signs for the Aston Villa womenBetween Davies and Aluko, identifying and recruiting the correct profile of players was bound to be a challenging task despite planning and building towards promotion for months before it was officially announced.

Signing a former England international and Chelsea Women’s stalwart with 18 career trophies to her name is, however, the perfect player to bring into the club. 35-year-old Anita Asante, who played in the Great Britain squad at London 2012, left WSL champions, Chelsea, last month before linking up with Villa in the past week.

She’s represented her country at over four major tournaments and has already vowed to help build a legacy at Villa.

She said: “One of the best things about this move is that I can contribute what I’ve experienced in the game as an international player and having played abroad to the growing legacy of the club.

“I can bring leadership with my temperament and I try to be level-headed. I try to bring that to my teammates and spread some positivity.

“I think I can support the young players coming through and push them to fulfil their potential.”

They don’t get more experienced than Asante and Villa director Aluko was determined to secure her services having played together at Chelsea, Sky Blue FC in New Jersey and for England at international level.

Asante said: “It’s great to see her and the position she holds, having the experience and knowledge that she had as a player is going to put us in a position to make sure the right bits are in place for us to challenge, train and compete.

“That’s one reason why I knew this was a positive move for me because I knew what she was like as a player and I know that she’ll be someone to be driving the standards here.”

The defender who’s racked up 70 caps for the Lionesses became Gemma Davies’ second signing of the summer as she constructs her squad for an historic first season in the Women’s Super League.

Davies is happy with the Asante signingDavies said: “Anita will be joining us from Chelsea Women with an already tremendous amount of experience in the FA Women’s Super League, having also represented England at major tournaments.

“Anita’s on-ball ability lends itself superbly to that of a modern-day centre-half – happy to play in tight spaces, play under pressure and creative passes between lines.

“This is what a centre-half at Aston Villa looks like. But it’s her character and desire to be the best that sets her apart.”

Offering more than experience on the field

As well as offering all the qualities that come with a former England international and WSL champion, like Tyrone Mings in the men’s team, Asante is a keen advocate of using her position to make a positive difference outside of football.

Asante believes the younger generation of football players and fans can help shape a better future for LGBT+ participants in the game.

Speaking on a special ‘Pride Inside’ panel during Pride Month 2020, Asante shone a light on the key issues surrounding LGBT+ inclusion in the game. Asante believes the women’s game still has work to do despite acknowledging that incremental changes have been made.

“When I started in football, as an amateur, it was kind of taboo – you’re a gay woman in football, that was the stereotype anyway,” she said.

“So for those girls who participated at the time, that [football] was a home for them because it was the taboo associated with the sport anyway.

“But now, as the game’s getting more professional, we’re starting to see a shift.

“Yes, it’s always been considered more inclusive but with the visibility and interest that comes from commercial sponsorship, TV and media, you see that some girls are more self aware about their image, personality and persona and the limitations that come with that because of negative stereotyping related to LGBTQ+.

“I’ve seen that transition happen and we need to find a way to educate, have these discussions openly and start with the youngsters coming in because ultimately they will lead the change for the future of the game.”

Discrimination, a lack of inclusion and sexism remains rife in football and whilst campaigns and initiatives are making a significant difference, Asante wants to see more being done in this area.

“I think it’s happening more and more now, but because it’s been so normalised and accepted within the women’s game, we can’t forget that we’ve still got work to do regardless,” she added.

“We’re trying to lead by example, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets where there are girls who still feel insecure to come out and be themselves in these spaces.

“I do think youngsters are more open and responsive and we’re seeing that kind of activism coming from youngsters.”

Asante is a proud, openly lesbian women keen to break the stigmas surrounding sexuality in sport.

“Being gay or lesbian in women’s football was taboo for such a long time,” Asante admitted to Sky Sports.

“There was a period between two generations where this negative bubble sat, and players were distancing themselves from the ‘label’ and the stereotypes. It was not seen as beneficial to the growth of the game and there were people in positions of power saying, ‘don’t brandish your sexuality’, or things like that.

“It influenced our generation, making players feel they couldn’t be fully open with the audience.

“Now we are starting to see the shift again into this modern period where there’s more freedom to express yourself. Megan Rapinoe, Ashlyn Harris and other US players have been at the forefront of that and have shown that who they are as people and their relationships can be a positive way to interact with the sport.”

“Growing up, even into your early 20s, you worry so much about what other people think of you. When I was able to push that all away, it was such a release. The older you get, you know who the most important people are in your life and that’s all that matters.

“For LGBT people and anyone in a minority really, it’s about accepting yourself and being proud of who you are. My mum would say ‘don’t be afraid to be different, be afraid to be the same’ – and it’s true. When I go into schools and talk to kids, about social media and all these things, I can see they’re so desperate to be liked and to be the same. We have to let them know that being different will take them so much further in life.”

Asante will add an abundance of quality and leadership to a dressing room already high on confidence and belief that next season can be one to remember.

Villa Women held a virtual Player Awards evening last month to commemorate their Invincible season and the individual achievements made during the 2019/20 season.

Four awards were handed out on the night: Players’ Player of the Season, Player of the Season, Supporters’ Young Player of the Season and Supporters’ Player of the Season.

Ewers won awardsGerman midfielder Marisa Ewers scooped the Players’ Player of the Season after her excellent campaign was recognised by her teammates. Ewers only joined the club 12 months ago having dropped down a division from WSL side Birmingham City to bolster Villa’s promotion hopes.

Homegrown talent Elisha N’Dow won the Player of the Season award, as voted for by management staff. N’Dow has been at the club since the age of 8, progressing through the ranks and into the first team. She’ll be looking to form a partnership with new signing Asante next season as the full-fledged WSL defender mentors one of our own into the Super League.

The Supporters’ Young Player of the Season award was won by Jodie Hutton for her performances on the flanks where she continued from her impressive 2018-20189 campaign when she finished the season as Villa’s top scorer. Injury niggles had thwarted Hutton’s progress this term but her versatility and quality was evident in the latter stages of the campaign.

This season’s top scorer, Mel Johnson picked up the Supporters’ Player of the Season having netted ten times in her first five games in a Villa shirt. Including three hat-tricks, Johnson went on to finish the seasons with 13 goals and four assists.

How the squad is shaping up

Truth be told, every player in Davies’ promotion squad deserves an awful lot of credit for investing in the process that saw Villa Women lose 12-0 in their opening game last season to being crowned as Invincible champions a year later.

Villa retained 13 players from their FAWC title-winning squad and will be registered alongside two new signings Arthur and Asante.

Homegrown players N’Dow, Hutton, Amy West, Shania Hayles, Emma Follis and Asmita Ale will all be representing Villa in the top flight next season.

Ewers, Nat Haigh, Sian Rogers, Ella Franklin, Nadine Hanssen, Emily Syme and Sophie Haywood will join them in Davies’ squad for the 20/21 season.

Head Coach Davies was delighted to have kept the majority of her squad ahead of the new campaign.

She said: “With the players we’ve retained, we have the foundations for an exciting, talented and dedicated squad.

“This group were part of something special and I know they’re keen to achieve much more in a claret and blue shirt.

“As a club, we place a strong emphasis on our homegrown players, so it’s great that we will have so many playing in the Super League next season.”

Eight players from last year’s squad departed when their contracts expired in June. They included Jade Richards, Kerri Welsh, Alice Hassall, Phoebe Warner, Mel Johnson, Charlotte Greengrass, Sophie Maierhofer and Daniela Kosinska.

Davies went on to place on record her appreciation for all eight players and wished them the very best in their future careers, after making one of the hardest decisions she’s had to make in her early management career.

She said: “This season’s achievements wouldn’t have been possible without every single member of the squad pulling in the same direction and striving to be the best team in the FA Women’s Championship.

“We are saying goodbye to great players, but also great people, who have contributed hugely to the success the club has enjoyed on and off the pitch.

“Jade, Kerri, Alice and Phoebe have been at the club for several seasons and their dedication to Aston Villa cannot be overstated, while Mel, Charlotte, Sophie and Daniela have all made their own significant contributions during their time here.

“We wish them all the best in the future and thank them for their service in claret and blue.”

Richards was the longest-serving player to depart the club, with the defender progressing to the first team as a 17-year-old having joined Villa at the under-10s level.

She will continue at the club in a different capacity however, as she helps to nurture the next generation of young Villans as Regional Talent Club Centre Manager.

New surroundings

Not only will Villa Women play in a new league next season, but they’ll also be moving into a new stadium having agreed a two-year deal with Walsall to play all home league games at the Banks’ Stadium from the start of next season.

All kick-offs are scheduled for 5:30 pm on either Saturdays or Sundays.

Sporting Director Eniola Aluko expressed her excitement ahead of moving into a new, bigger stadium.

She said: “Having secured promotion to the WSL we are delighted to have agreed a two-year agreement with Walsall to play all of our home matches at the Banks’ Stadium.

“At 11,000 Banks’ Stadium will be one of the largest capacity stadiums in the WSL league which is exciting and promising for the future of our club, the players, and the loyal support of our local fanbase.

“Walsall have hosted England women’s national team games in the past, so we are excited to work alongside the club to host regular women’s football fixtures in women’s professional football.”

CazooNew club principal partner Cazoo will also feature on the playing kits and training wear of all Aston Villa Women, men and youth sides.

Alex Chesterman OBE, Founder & CEO of Cazoo said: “We’re delighted to be partnering with Aston Villa and supporting the Club’s men’s and women’s sides as well as their academy and charitable efforts.”

Nicola Ibbetson, Aston Villa Chief Commercial Officer, added: “We are immensely proud to have partnered with one of the fastest-growing businesses in the UK and Cazoo’s commitment to a partnership with Aston Villa provides both parties with an opportunity to work together for many years to come.

“Alongside several planned activations and fan engagement activities, all generations of Villa fans will be able to wear replica shirts that faithfully resemble those of their on-pitch heroes with the Cazoo branding appearing on all replica kit.”

Now that preparations for Villa’s first WSL season are well underway, attention will turn to the highly anticipated fixture release day ahead of a rumoured September 5 start date.

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